Game Name: Yo-Kai Watch
Platform(s): Nintendo 3DS
Publisher(s): Nintendo, Level-5, Koei Tecmo
Developer(s): Level-5, Koei Tecmo
Release Date: 11/06/2015
Upon first glance, Yo-Kai Watch looks like a bit of a ripoff of Pokémon; it features a world full of colorful creatures which are collected for battling (of which the player is limited to a team of six at any given time), it has a cute animal mascot, and when leveled up, some of these creatures can evolve. The similarities end there though, and in a broader scope, Yo-Kai Watch actually brings a lot to the table and works well to differentiate itself from Pokémon, for better or worse.
First of the major differences is that while Yo-Kai Watch does have a companion anime, there is little differentiation between the two. Yes, it’s theorized that in Pokémon Yellow Version that the player character is Ash Ketchum from the anime, as well Red the Pokémon Gold/Silver games; but the protagonist of both the Yo-Kai Watch anime and game (assuming you pick the boy character) are the same person, and the first episode of the anime is even shares its premise with the game’s first quest. Moreover, there is a quest in the game in which the player character befriends a kappa, and in the anime the main character is able to call upon this same kappa despite not having contact with it, stating “it’s not important right now” when asked when he had befriended it. This implies that the games don’t only share a universe, but an entire canon, which is pretty neat. However, I do digress; let’s get to the meat of the matter: the gameplay.
In Yo-Kai Watch, the player assembles a team of six yo-Kai ([youkai] spirit-like creatures from Japanese mythology) on a wheel, allowing the player to freely rotate which three yo-kai are currently fighting at any time during battle. This wheel system is the crux of battling in Yo-Kai Watch, and proves to be what sets it apart the most from other games of the same ilk; in fact, the number of factors depending on this wheel is almost staggering when looked at from a broader perspective. I posit that this system is what allows this game to be enjoyable; for example, every yo-kai has only five basic actions it can make on its turn: basic attack, technique (magic attack), Inspirit (apply buff or debuff), guard, or loaf (in which they waste their turn). Looking at these options, one would think “why would I ever choose to loaf?” Surprisingly enough, the answer is that you don’t. The player does not have control over which action the yo-kai makes in battle (though it is possible to use items to make the yo-kai prioritize certain actions or loaf less often). However, the player does have control of when a yo-kai uses their soultimate move, which varies in effect from case to case.
Each yo-kai only has one of each type of action (which cannot be changed at all), so it’s impossible to have a team entirely made of rounded yo-kai like you would in, say, Pokémon. Rather, teams here work best when diverse with each yo-kai having a role to fill; primarily speaking, the classic damage/healer/tank trinity. In tense battles, it’s important to know when to rotate in tanks to soak up big damage, when to bring in healers to keep everyone in working order, and when to put as much damage on the board as possible. Keeping this balance is even more important than it sounds at face value, as spots in the wheel can only be swapped at save points; so if a yo-kai goes down in battle you have to work around that gap in the wheel, and if two yo-kai at opposite ends of the wheel get taken out, it’s impossible to have three on the field at any given time, hindering damage and utility potential.
If the weight of this system weren’t enough already, any yo-kai that is afflicted with a debuff may be “purified”, removing the debuff; however, yo-kai can only be purified if they are not currently in play, meaning that one might have to risk throwing off their combat plan to remove a potentially crippling debuff. If that weren’t enough, purification (and soultimate moves for that matter) requires that the player complete a short minigame before it can take effect. These minigames don’t last more than four or five seconds, but during that time, the battle does not stop, and any action besides completing or quitting the minigame cannot be taken; meaning that if used at an inopportune time, one of these minigames could mean a loss. This, in combination with the importance of combat roles causes fights against strong enemies to be tense and have a near MMO-raid-style level level of micromanagement, and it makes the game simply riveting; all thanks to something as simple as a lazy Susan to keep your combatants on.
Outside of combat, Yo-Kai Watch is much like an anime in its own right. It all takes place in a single town, and the quests the player has to take often arise from the player character living their day-to-day lives and having to go into action when they sense that a yo-kai is responsible for something going awry; each main quest even has a title card to punctuate this stylistic choice. In addition to the main quests the player must complete to advance the story, there are side quests the player can receive through people around town, offering a variety of options for the player to take and giving the game some flexibility to more freely do what they want in the game. This all sounds fine and dandy, but it is dragged down by a couple strange design choices.
First is the day/night cycle. As the player goes about their business, time passes and transitions from day to night. This would normally be fine, but some quests cannot be completed at certain parts of the day, and the only way to make time move faster is to go all the way back home and go to bed (which is rather annoying as Springdale is a rather large town), which is made worse by poor transportation. The only ways to get around in the game are by walking/running (though running works on a stamina meter that slows you to a crawl if depleted), biking (which is much faster, though not by enough to be a great improvement) and teleporting (which makes everything easier, but it can only be done at certain locations, and [granted I did do a number of side-quests] it took me around 12 hours to unlock the ability to do it). This proves to be a bit of a slog if you just want to get on with your quests.
Second, and most importantly, is that the map system is quite poor. Specifically speaking, notable locations are not specially marked, so when asked to go to a certain location, you have to remember on your own which building (or entire area) is which. There are even certain quests that tell you to go to areas you’ve never been before; so the name means nothing to you yet, and you certainly can’t locate it on the map by name. This is made much worse by the fact that quests markers on the main map only exist for main quests, meaning that for side quests, you have to constantly open your quest log and see if you’re in the right area. Worse still, there are certain side quests that are required for the player to be able to progress through the story, meaning that the player is forced to wrestle with this map system to get by. This hits its apex when one of these quests doesn’t even have markers in its quest log, and instead expects the player to simply remember every entry to the maze-like sewer system that they’ve come across.
Since we’re pouring out all the bad, let’s get to the last obnoxious system in the game: befriending yo-kai. Though many quest-related areas have yo-kai out in the open for you to fight; when in the city at large you have to pay attention to your radar to see if a yo-kai is near by, inspect an item/area of interest (such as under cars, on light posts, or in trees) then move a reticle to spot the yo-kai and keep it on them for a few seconds as they run around (it’s important to note that if a yo-kai leaves the area the reticle is covering, progress on revealing them decays), only then can you fight them. This is very novel at first, and quite authentic to the premise that yo-kai are everywhere but they need to be spotted; however, after a while it becomes a chore and a hindrance to leveling your team. That’s just battling, befriending them is a different matter. After a battle, a yo-kai you defeated in said battle may randomly ask to be your friend; the player can increase the probability of this happening by giving the opponent a healing item (don’t worry, they only heal your yo-kai); if that yo-kai happens to like what you offer, they will be more likely to want to befriend you; or so they claim at least. I don’t know if certain yo-kai have a lower chance of wanting to befriend you, but I’ve wasted a good deal of good healing items on certain yo-kai (which they loved by the way) with absolutely no results, even when effectively farmed.
As for overall quality, the anime style of the game works heavily in its favor; it allows for all of the models to be stylized so as to look really good for a handheld game. The environments are somewhat bland due to the whole game taking place in a single city, but the appealing and sometimes bizarre designs of the yo-kai clash in such a way that it gives a strong “making the ordinary extraordinary” vibe. The music is nothing special, but the sound effects and occasional voices are pretty good, so it evens out.
A monstrously good time
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 7.5/10
Sound - 7.5/10
Value - 8/10
Though Yo-Kai Watch has its fair share of issues, it offers such a fresh approach to RPG combat that it's not worth missing. In addition, the characters in the game are quite enjoyable, and some of them have entertaining or seriously heavy stories to tell. Definitely worth the purchase if you suspect this might be your kind of game.
- Robust, distinctive style
- Engrossing combat
- likable characters
- Poor map system
- Befriending yo-kai can be difficult, especially if you want a specific one
- Day/night cycle can be a drag